Jigging Tactics For Winter Panfish

It takes specialized equipment and a jeweler's touch to successfully fool perch, bluegills and other panfish in winter. Our expert explains how it's done.

Perhaps there is a time for other fishing methods, for a spread of tip-ups or other types of setlines. But once you've located panfish, it's hard to beat the excitement, efficiency and satisfaction of jigging.

Among serious fishermen, at least, the ice-fishing season is the time to get serious about panfish. Why fishermen get so excited about the diminutive panfish is anyone's guess.

But the bottom line is that ice-fishing for perch, bluegills and sunfish is great fun, with the additional reward of some palate-pleasing fillets at the end of the day.

For many years, winter panfishing was regarded as a very simple sport: Just drill a hole where everybody else is fishing, drop a baited jig to the bottom and wait for a fish to bite.

If the fish were on, everybody filled their buckets.

THERE'S A TRICK TO IT!

But it never was quite that simple. There were always a few ice-fishermen who made good catches when others were having a difficult time. Most other fishermen assumed they were just lucky.

Only by very close observation could you see that the most successful anglers did anything differently.

The trick is fine-tuning your tactics and shrinking your perceptions. Panfish live in a smaller world. The average angler can see for miles on a clear day, but panfish can see only a few inches under the ice. Adapt to a panfish's frame of mind by thinking, observing and adjusting your winter offerings in tiny increments.

FINDING FISH

Setting up in the right area might not be enough. When panfish are active, they move around and will eventually find the baited jigs. But when not moving much, they are still catchable -- you must place the jigs very close to the target.

Panfish tend to be cover- or structure-oriented. A hole in the ice that will let the angler drop a jig along the edges of a weedbed might catch fish, while a hole cut three feet away over open water may not.

Drilling holes in the ice with any kind of accuracy is difficult, but not impossible. The solution is to drill a lot of holes. Use a 5-inch auger to make this chore easier. Serious panfish fanatics carry a special panfish auger, rather than buying one auger that's large enough for any fish.

USE SONAR

Most serious ice-fishermen now consider a good sonar unit to be basic equipment. A good sonar unit can shorten the time it takes to locate good places to drill holes. Look for steep depth changes and various types of cover that attract schools of panfish.

Even more important is how deep the panfish are holding. Most fish are cover-oriented, but hungry panfish will suspend near the most abundant food source. Keep a close watch on the sonar screen and be alert to sudden depth changes as the fish move in pursuit of food. Upward movements might not last long, but they usually signal some fast action.

The deeper the water, the more important your sonar unit becomes.

This is simple mathematics. You can cover all depths quite well by jigging in water that's 7 feet deep, but in 20 feet of water, covering all depths by jigging blindly is time-consuming and impractical.

JIGGING STRATEGIES

When fishing, perhaps the most effective tactic is creating a circuit of productive holes. When the fish are not moving much, the action will slow down after you catch a few fish. That's the time to move on to another hole. If you have cut three or four good holes, you can expect fish to trickle back under the first one by the time you have gone through the routine at those other holes.

On many lakes, other ice-fishermen will take over the good holes if you leave them -- which is politically correct behavior while panfishing. This when having a few tip-ups on hand is a good idea. Before leaving a good hole, rig a tip-up to "claim" the hole. It's not necessary to bait the tip-up or to set the hook in the fish- catching zone.

This may seem to a bit on the sneaky side, but it's hardly inappropriate after you have gone to the effort of finding the spots and cutting some productive holes.

Aside from small minnows, the things that panfish eat do not move about in the water in long spurts. Vary your jigging action in tiny increments. Duplicating the movements of common panfish forage is best done by trying to hold the jigging rod perfectly still. The small, uncontrolled movements you make should be enough to attract hungry fish.

Every minute, or so, jig the rod tip a few inches just to garner more attention. But do not jig rigorously or constantly. This might make it too hard for a panfish to catch your jig, or may be too aggressive for a panfish that's not in a predatory mood.

TACKLE TIPS

Terminal tackle for panfish is small and relatively inexpensive, so there is no reason not to carry a good selection of baits and jigs in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors.

Of course, we all hope to catch slab-sized panfish, but this doesn't always happen. Switching from minnows to maggots might create a catch of modest-sized panfish when nothing was biting.

Spend some time checking out a well-stocked tackle shop. Do all of those tiny panfish jigs look pretty much alike? At first glance, they probably do. Here again, shrink your perception. A difference in shape that you cannot see without a magnifying glass might change the action enough to get you into fish. A difference in length of 1/16 inch may be enough to match a preferred food. A difference in weight of 1/64 ounce might affect the drop rate after you lift the jig.

Colors can be a confusing issue. Certain colors tend to be most popular at a given lake. But, are these really the most effective colors, or do they catch fish simply because most ice-fishermen use these colors?

If it's a matter if matching the colors of a panfish's natural food, consider some shade of brown. Black is another good imitation of natural colors.

The most important color factor might be visibility. Sunlight, ice thickness, snow on the ice, water clarity, depth and various combinations of these elements will affect which color is most visible.

The bottom line is that panfishermen should carry a good selection of colors. Among these should be lime green, orange, red, chartreuse, yellow, si

lver, gold and black. Some fluorescent colors should be included. Also stock some jigs that give off a very slight glow in the dark.

Storing live minnows between trips is much easier during winter than in summer. An aerator in the minnow bucket can keep minnows alive for a couple of weeks. Stretch that to a couple of months if you keep the minnows in a large ice chest.

Most grubs can be stored in a refrigerator all winter long. Carry maggots and larger grubs, minnows and some sort of dough-type commercial bait every time you ice-fish for panfish and you will be ready for most situations.

RODS & LINE FOR JIGGING

You should choose two pieces of ice-fishing gear with particular consideration: rods and line.

Panfish are often very light hitters. Select a sensitive rod that will indicate a nibble either by feel or by sight. A jigging rod made specifically for panfish may be ultra-light, even micro-light.

Setting a hook into the soft tissue of a panfish's mouth on a short, vertical line is not difficult. Most important is immediately detecting the slightest bite. Some anglers may be able to do this by feel. But if you're wearing gloves or if your fingers are cold, you won't feel the most delicate hits. Seeing the rod tip bend or twitch, or seeing a bobber wiggle, is often the only way to detect a tentative bite.

Bobbers are great under the proper circumstances -- notably while fishing in a heated ice shelter or outside on reasonably warm days. A spring bobber can even be added to a jigging rod that isn't limber enough to flex when a panfish bites lightly.

For all-around serious panfishing, nothing beats a sensitive micro-light jigging rod designed specifically for these paper-mouthed fish.

Preparing for the panfish that are most easily fooled is not serious ice-fishing. Some panfish are line-shy, others less so. Three-pound-test line in either a top-quality monofilament or fluorocarbon is a good choice.

Learn to shrink your perceptions in all aspects of angling under the ice and you will be well on your way to a great winter of panfishing.

Be safe and comfortable this winter: Catching fish is only the secondary goal. Your primary goal is to have a good time!

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